Serious and widespread problems have festered in Mecklenburg County’s Health Department for far too long, and plenty of people share the blame. But now county commissioners and County Manager Dena Diorio have an opportunity to make things right.
Commissioners meet Tuesday to discuss internal and external reports that detail troubles within the department that have directly affected the quality of patient care. They and Diorio should use this opportunity not to be defensive or continue their political sniping, but to get serious about fixing one of local government’s most essential functions.
That would seem to be an obvious approach, but the department’s failures have driven a chasm between those who want to fix them and those more concerned about coming to the defense of ousted Director Marcus Plescia and others, regardless of the facts.
In one recent email, commissioner Trevor Fuller blamed fellow commissioner Jim Puckett for Plescia’s departure. “We’ve already lost one health director, a top-notch physician and public health expert, in part because of public comments you have made,” Fuller wrote. “You contributed to the atmosphere that caused him to lose his job and damaged his professional reputation.”
That is disappointing and irresponsible, given the problems national consultant Navigant laid out in its 250-page assessment of the department, as well as other sober findings by consultant Praxis and by the county’s own internal audit department.
Navigant discovered an operation fundamentally broken in many ways. Patient information is mishandled, patients endure long waits to check in at clinics and “standards and metrics minimally exist or are not used to gauge performance.” “Some managers do not exhibit/model appropriate behaviors for their staff. Staff, also, model these inappropriate behaviors, leading to a bad culture and a(n) inhospitable work environment for staff,” the report said.
Fuller and others with his viewpoint should recognize it was those realities that caused Plescia to lose his job, not Puckett’s reaction to them. Diorio herself has recognized that.
The Health Department’s failures have many owners – from employees to supervisors to Plescia to Diorio to commissioners themselves, who serve as the Board of Health. What’s more important now is that Navigant and Praxis have spelled out ways for the department to better serve patients, and that’s what should be demanding commissioners’ and Diorio’s focus.
Some commissioners have floated the idea that the Health Department needs to be privatized. But these problems stem from poor practices and leadership, not from being a public agency.
It is true, however, that the commissioners are not public health experts. So they should examine whether they should be the Board of Health, or whether the county and its people would be better served with a largely independent Board of Health made up of medical professionals and public health experts.
Commissioners and county leadership were slow to recognize and acknowledge the Health Department’s problems. Now they are laid bare for all to see, which gives leaders the opportunity, and the responsibility, to do the right thing.